When I was about 13, my brother Gavin was sent home with lice. I was repulsed that insects were crawling through his hair. At that age, I couldn’t distinguish the difference between head lice and Ebola so I demanded my mother place him in instant quarantine. I screamed blue murder if he came within 10 feet of me.
I’ve matured a lot since then and I handled our latest family medical hiccup with grace and calm. For about three weeks around the end of October, Megan scratched her head every now and again. I noticed a rash at the back of her neck and thought it was just eczema. I should have realised she had lice but she hates me brushing or styling her hair. These days I choose my battles so I left it wild and unkempt and it looked as if she’d been electrocuted. This meant I was unaware of all the action going on in the tangle.
One day, I noticed a dark little scab on her scalp. I looked closer. The ‘scab’ wiggled around and then took off, running away from me through her hair. It was the first time I have ever seen a louse and my first impression was that it was cuter than I expected – less like the vile cockroach I imagined and more like an ant or a ladybird without the attractive shell.
Lice can’t jump like fleas or swim like fish so they pass from head to head through direct contact with the scalp. As soon as I saw Megan’s lice, I knew we must surely all have it. Alastair shaved his head so that was the end of it for him and Jessica has no hair so she was fine too. It was only Megan and I that required a once off treatment with a sticky silicone, insecticide-free shampoo that zaps the nits and lice in one go.
I noticed the lice on a Saturday evening so we headed to the emergency chemist where I shyly and apologetically explained my predicament. The pharmacist was blasé and said that every Tom, Dick and Harry have lice at the moment. She said that as soon as school starts up after the holidays, there is a tidal wave of customers requiring treatment. In fact, I read on the internet that one in three people has lice once a year. Did you know that? I didn’t. It means you have probably had lice a few times without realising it. I bet I had it often when I lived in London and leaned my head back against the seat on the train or tube.
The thing that surprised me the most was that I had lice and didn’t even know it. I thought that lice would be more obvious because your hair would itch like crazy. I felt nothing other than the usual mild discomfort that signals it’s time for a wash. It is also a challenge to identify the tiny nits (eggs) because they look a lot like dandruff. The difference is that if you flick at it, dandruff moves whereas the nit sticks hard and fast to a strand of hair.
When I discovered we had lice, I had a crisis of conscience because I wasn’t sure what my responsibility was to those I had been in contact with for the previous three weeks. Was it polite to tell them? WWJD? The leaflet in the shampoo box said I should. I decided I shouldn’t.
Lice has a stigma, let’s face it. It is one of those misunderstood conditions that you don’t want to announce from the rooftops, a bit like a sexually transmitted disease or mental illness. If someone asked me how my weekend was and I said, ‘Well I spent Sunday fine combing my hair and boiling the linen because we had lice’, I bet you they would take two quick steps backwards and then not invite me round for playdates for the next couple of weeks. I didn’t want people to treat us like we had cooties, even if we genuinely did have cooties.
Apparently after one dose of the shampoo, you are lice-free and can continue normal activities. You then have to fine comb your hair every time you wash it and reapply the shampoo as a precaution a week later. I decided to keep our drama hush-hush and adopt a lower profile for the following few days. I kept feeling as if I was carrying around a naughty secret. Sometimes it was like I had a superpower. One day I was at the supermarket and a woman in front of me was all stroppy with the cashier. I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Lady listen up. Don’t mess with me. I HAVE LICE.’
I read on the internet that lice are a pain to get rid of. Not only do you have to destroy the ones in your hair but you have to purge their traces from all linen, stuffed toys, car seat covers, hairbrushes, couches … etc … etc. Other than placing a fumigation tent over the house, it was impossible for me to clean every item that any of us could have possibly contaminated. You can never be sure you have covered all your bases because it only takes one undiscovered nit to get the whole cycle going again. Anyone with OCD would combust from the stress of it all.
The pharmacist sold me a spray for the environment. She said I should spray pillows, seats and any item that cannot be boiled in the washing machine. When I got home I read the fine print on the bottle and saw it contains a mild insecticide. People spray this stuff on their pillows and then breathe it in while they sleep. Are you kidding me? Insecticide? Forget it! I would rather have lice, thank you very much.
Fortunately I read on the NHS and Swiss government medical sites that one should forget about the environment and focus on the head first. Good thing I followed this advice and only washed the linen because three days later I found a few more nits. They are stubborn little suckers.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, we’re all lice and nit free. I must admit that as I write this blog, my hair is feeling a little itchy but I’m sure that’s just psychosomatic.